Cong fights that '272' feeling Hopes rest on abstentions

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By RADHIKA RAMASESHAN in Delhi
  • Published 18.07.08
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New Delhi, July 18: The figure 272 has come to haunt Sonia Gandhi again in the shape of Mulayam Singh Yadav — with a difference.

In 1999, when Sonia claimed she had the magic number to offer an alternative government after the NDA coalition fell, Mulayam walked out with his united flock. This time he’s falling over himself to bail out the Manmohan Singh government in the July 22 trust vote but with a divided house.

The absence of a full house at a headcount meeting of the Samajwadi Party triggered speculation of fresh desertions in Mulayam’s ranks, though the leadership insisted that barring four MPs, the remaining 35 are behind the decision to vote for the UPA.

With the Samajwadis looking shakier than before, the Congress’s endeavour to pull the smaller parties and push up its numbers to 272 (the half-way mark in a House of 543) appeared to be sputtering. Party sources conceded that the plan of making the Samajwadis the fulcrum of a new coalition in place of the Left and giving the post-July 22 dispensation a sense of durability might unravel.

The Congress’s last-ditch strategy is to engineer abstentions from NDA constituents such as the Shiv Sena, Akali Dal and the Biju Janata Dal. If such abstentions come through, it will be easier to touch the scaled-down majority mark. Perhaps sensing this, the Shiromani Akali Dal today issued a whip to its eight MPs to vote against the government.

The Congress doesn’t yet share Rahul Gandhi’s “so be it” sentiment of facing a defeat on the floor of the House and going down in glory on an issue of “supreme national interest” — the Indo-US nuclear deal — like V.P. Singh did in 1990 on the Mandal report. But a general secretary conceded: “The allegations of horse-trading have taken a toll on the party’s image. It’s a cause of worry.”

The Congress scotched speculation of a cabinet expansion before the trust vote. A meeting of the party’s core group decided that the government’s survival must not be at the cost of its “iqbal” (integrity).

The Congress general secretary claimed that the party was in no mood to “oblige” resident bugbears such as R. Jalappa and Arvind Sharma who dropped loud hints of how “unhappy” they were with the state leaders. “We can’t be blackmailed,” the leader said.

Sharma, who is the Karnal (Haryana) MP, copiously praised Mayavati and trashed the Congress and the Samajwadi Party at a media conference even as chief minister B.S. Hooda went all out to placate him.

The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM), whose five MPs were expected to shore up the UPA’s strength, played hard to get. A senior Congress functionary tasked to get in touch with Shibu Soren said he managed to contact only the JMM leader’s son, Durga Soren.

Soren junior has apparently conveyed to the Congress that his father would prefer to be Jharkhand chief minister rather than a minister at the Centre. The son added for good measure: between the BJP and the Congress, his father “liked” the latter, a leader of the ruling party said. However, the Jharkhand Congress advised the central leaders to keep Soren in Delhi because if he became the chief minister, the party feared a rout in the state.

Former Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, whose Janata Dal (Secular) has three MPs, sounded ambiguous. Manmohan Singh spoke to Gowda this morning, following which the Karnataka leader said he would meet the Prime Minister in Delhi tomorrow.

Ajit Singh, the Rashtriya Lok Dal leader being wooed by the UPA and the Opposition, was tight-lipped.

Sonia will meet Congress MPs individually from Saturday to guard the party’s flanks and prevent “encroachments”, sources said.